CRIS "CYBORG" JUSTINO walked into The Forum in Inglewood, California, through the VIP entrance on Sept. 28. It was the first Bellator event she'd attended since signing with the promotion three weeks earlier. But even though she was new to the company, she felt a comfort in knowing she would see many familiar faces.
Cyborg made her way backstage and, sure enough, she kept running into Bellator staff members who once had worked for Strikeforce. "Welcome home," she recalled hearing again and again. "You took too long."
A decade ago, Cyborg was the Strikeforce women's featherweight champion for promoter Scott Coker, who is now Bellator's president.
"That was amazing," Cyborg said of the greeting. "I said, 'I made the right choice.' Sometimes you have to put your ego aside and be happy. You have to do this."
Such happiness had eluded Cyborg during her time in the UFC, despite her being the promotion's 145-pound champion as recently as 13 months ago. It became obvious as her contract ran its course last summer that it was time for her to move on.
Cyborg will be back at The Forum on Saturday night for her Bellator debut. She'll be challenging women's featherweight champion Julia Budd with a chance to pull off a rare MMA grand slam. If Cyborg beats Budd, she'll be the first fighter to win titles in the UFC, Strikeforce, Invicta FC and Bellator.
While Cyborg's legacy as one of the greatest MMA fighters ever is already set, there is no shortage of questions about this next chapter.
What can Bellator offer her in terms of competition in the 145-pound women's division? Will her rocky run in the UFC and inability to book a rematch with Amanda Nunes, who took away her belt in December 2018, skew how people look back at her career? How much does Cyborg have left at 34 years old?
THE FINAL FIGHT on Cyborg's UFC contract, on July, 27, 2019, was a unanimous-decision victory over Felicia Spencer. Four days later, UFC president Dana White told the promotion's website that the UFC was "out of the Cyborg business" and would not be re-signing her. The final straw: Cyborg's video team edited a video of White to make it appear that he admitted something to Cyborg backstage after her Spencer win that he didn't actually say. Cyborg apologized for that misrepresentation.
The relationship between Cyborg and the UFC was doomed to fail from the start. Even before Cyborg started with the organization, she was offended by White saying she "looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels," referencing a legend of men's MMA who wears on his face the effects of a 51-fight career. White referred to Cyborg as "jacked up on steroids" and was part of a podcast conversation that questioned her womanhood.
When Cyborg was invited into the UFC in 2016, the idea was for her to cut weight to 135 pounds for a megafight with Ronda Rousey. Cyborg tried twice to work her way down by fighting at a catchweight of 140 pounds. She succeeded, although at risk to her health.
After Rousey was knocked out twice and faded from the sport, the Cyborg-at-bantamweight experiment was dropped. Cyborg was passed up for the inaugural women's featherweight title fight because she was in the process of settling an issue with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. But on July 29, 2017, she finally competed for the belt, and won it, beating Tonya Evinger.
However, Cyborg felt like the UFC never tried to build that 145-pound division or her brand. She defended the belt twice before Nunes, who already was the women's bantamweight champion, knocked her out at UFC 232 on Dec. 29, 2018, in one of the biggest women's fights in MMA history.
It was Cyborg's first loss in 13 years -- since her first pro fight in 2005. Between that debut loss and this one, Cyborg had established herself as one of the most feared fighters in the world, man or woman. She was unbeaten in 21 straight fights and rarely challenged. The fearsome, buzz saw-like Cyborg accumulated 17 TKO/KOs, 10 of which came in the first round.
Cyborg (21-2, 1 NC) said she immediately asked for a rematch, which would have been a blockbuster, more than capable of headlining a pay-per-view event.
"I did everything for it to happen," Cyborg said of a Nunes rematch. "The first night [after the Nunes fight], I called Dana. The first night, I texted him. My manager contacted him. We did our best for the fight to happen, and it doesn't happen. If it doesn't happen, I cannot stress about anything I can't control."
Cyborg said she offered to take a one-fight deal with the UFC, with that one fight being against Nunes. But the UFC, which has a champion's clause to keep titleholders under contract, turned her down, she said.
UFC president Dana White remembered differently. "She will not fight Amanda Nunes, on a one-fight, 10-fight, half-a-fight deal. She does not want to fight Amanda Nunes," he told reporters in August. "Amanda Nunes will knock her out again in the first round. I know it, you know it and she knows it."
Cyborg and Coker would be willing to take that chance. They both expressed interest in a co-promotion with the UFC to make a rematch happen. Nunes shot down the far-fetched idea.
"I really don't know what's the case," Nunes told ESPN last month. "But I feel like she made that decision, and it's clear it's never gonna happen, this rematch. Because she's out. I don't know why she keeps pushing that. It doesn't make any sense. She should have stayed. If she really wanted that [rematch] to happen, she should have stayed."
The UFC declined further comment on this situation.
Bellator president was shocked Cyborg was a free agent
Bellator MMA president Scott Coker joins Ariel Helwani's MMA Show to shed some light on the new major deal with former UFC fighter Cris Cyborg.
WHEN CYBORG BECAME a free agent, Coker said it was a no-brainer to sign her. The promoter said he'd easily put Cyborg on the Mount Rushmore of women's MMA. Eleven years after she headlined a successful Strikeforce show against Gina Carano on Showtime, Cyborg can still produce numbers, Coker said. Her fight with Budd, and the rest of Bellator 238, will be on the streaming service DAZN.
"If you're asking me if she's still a draw, I would say yes, absolutely," Coker said. "She was definitely a needle-mover for us in Strikeforce. And I know she was a needle-mover in the UFC, and she'll be a needle-mover for us in Bellator. There's certain people where you don't even need to say their last name -- all you need to say is their first name or nickname, and people know exactly who that is. She has crossed that line of pop culture."
Cyborg is happy with the women's featherweight division Bellator has built. It's still shallow compared to other weight classes, but with a roster consisting of Budd, Cat Zingano, Arlene Blencowe, Jessy Miele and Talita Nogueira, Bellator has the 145-pound competition Cyborg felt she was missing in the UFC.
"Bellator has all the girls," Cyborg said. "They signed every girl. They've invested in this division."
Budd (13-2) is no slouch. She hasn't lost in nine years and is on an 11-fight win streak. The only two women the 36-year-old has ever lost to were Rousey and Nunes. It's a legitimate matchup for Cyborg and a real litmus test to see where she is now as a 15-year pro.
If she can get by Budd, Coker said, Cyborg could next face Zingano, another recent signee from the UFC. Zingano will fight once for Bellator in the first quarter of this year, per Coker, and if she wins, she then likely would go for the featherweight title. Zingano owns a victory over Nunes.
Cyborg said other promotions came to the table when she was done with her UFC contract. One Championship and the PFL were among them, sources say. She said her deal with Bellator will pay her more money than what she earned with the UFC, although she wouldn't go into detail. Cyborg's Bellator contract also allows her to compete in boxing, which is one of her goals. Coker said he'll discuss that with Cyborg after the bout with Budd.
More important than any contractual details, Cyborg said she just feels comfortable being with Bellator and working again with Coker. That troubled relationship with the UFC is now in the rearview mirror, and she can just focus on fighting.
"I feel different. I feel happy," Cyborg said. "My boss didn't say anything bad about me. He didn't do anything like that. I'm happy; I go to work happy. I think it's a good way to do it."